2014-15 Chicago Bulls: So far, so good

In his contract year, 4th-year SG Jimmy Butler (with ball) has been the Bulls' best offensive player to date. Pay the man, GarPax.  Tom Szczerbowski -- USA Today Sports

In his contract year, 4th-year SG Jimmy Butler (with ball) has been the Bulls’ best offensive player to date. Pay the man, GarPax. Tom Szczerbowski — USA Today Sports

At 17-9, the Chicago Bulls currently sit in first place in the NBA’s Central Division, three-and-a-half games behind the Toronto Raptors (yes, the freaking Toronto Raptors) for the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference. With an expected win-loss record of 16-10, it appears the Bulls are about where they should be in terms of play. One-and-a-half games behind the Bulls in the Central are the reloaded Cleveland Cavaliers (15-10), and once again, the East looks fairly weak, especially when compared to the West.

Backcourt.

Obviously, the most compelling story behind the 14-15 Bulls has been, and will be, the return of PG Derrick Rose. Even those who resided under a rock this past summer were most likely made aware of Rose’s each move on the basketball court, whether it was for Team USA during the FIBA Basketball World Cup or Bulls, during the preseason and regular season. Before missing the last two games due to illness, Rose had started and finished ten straight games. In 16 games, playing just over 27 minutes a night, Rose has posted this line:

16.8 PPG, 3.3 TRB, 5.1 AST, .421 FG%, .281 3P%, .776 FT%, 3.3 TOV, .522 TS%, 17.1 PER

While 17/3/5 in just 27 minutes a night would be wonderful for just about anyone, Rose isn’t just

Derrick Rose, doing Derrick Rose stuff.

Derrick Rose, doing Derrick Rose stuff.

about anyone. A career 46% shooter from the field and 31% from long distance, Rose has never been a sharpshooter, although he’s improved as a shooter since entering the league in 2008. Factoring into Rose’s paltry shooting numbers this season is his shot selection. So far, Rose has attempted a career-low 38.6% of his shots from ten feet and closer. What makes this number so frustrating is that he’s shooting just over 59% in that space on the floor, a career-high mark. From deep, Rose has put up more shots (nearly 6 a game) than any other time since his second year in the league and this season. Not only is this problematic because Rose is shooting terribly from three-point territory, but also because the Bulls are currently second in the league in free throws per field goal attempt. When Rose chucks from deep, he misses nearly 75% of the time, creating easier opportunities for the opponent to get into their transition offense and score quick, efficient baskets. Rose is still knocking the rust off of his game, but he’s been well above-average thus far and should find production at a higher level easier as the season goes on.

Twenty-five year-old shooting guard Jimmy Butler entered the 14-15 season needing to improve on a disappointing 13-14 campaign that saw his value plummet and questions arise whether or not Butler could be the Bulls’ off guard of the future. Through 24 games (all starts), Butler has been pretty damn good, and the dreaded “m” word may get thrown around when/if contract negotiations come up this offseason. Averaging a shade under 22 points per night while shooting a very respectable 49% from the field and 33% from deep, Butler has also maintained his status as one of the league’s better defenders. With a VORP that has already reached 5.1, Butler seems on track for an All-NBA caliber season.

I never expected Kirk Hinrich to do much when he was re-signed this offseason. And, you know what, he certainly hasn’t on the offensive end. On the defensive end, however, he’s been surprisingly average and dare I say, on most nights, above-average. This still doesn’t negate the fact that he’s shooting 36% from the field (actually down from last year’s 39% and 12-13’s 38%) and has posted a PER of 8.2 and VORP of -0.1, making him damn near valueless in the 28 minutes a night he’s playing. The man who should be most angered by the Bulls’ loyalty to Hinrich besides myself is fellow backup point man, Aaron Brooks. The 6’1″ Oregon product can be added to the list of smaller, backup point guards (Nate Robinson, DJ Augustin) who found a home, and success, with the Bulls. While playing nearly 20 minutes a night, Brooks has averaged almost 11 points a night and just over 3 assists. With a shooting line of (FG%/3P%/FT%) .470/.446/.857 to boot, Brooks has proved to be a wise investment, although he does average 4 turnovers per 36 minutes.

Tony Snell probably doesn’t have much of a future with the Bulls, and his performance in limited time this season has not changed that opinion. After a strong summer performance, Snell has apparently fallen out of the rotation and has posted a PER of a measly 5. Backup point guard E’Twaun Moore was signed to essentially fill out the roster and has done just that, picking up some minutes occasionally.

Frontcourt.

Reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year and 1st-Team All-NBA center Joakim Noah has been slowed by injuries thus far, but has still managed to post (PPG/RPG/APG) 8.7/9.9/4.3 a night and produce at a high level on the defensive end. His field goal percentage and True Shooting percentage have both dropped for the fifth consecutive season, however. Fellow starting big Pau Gasol has been nothing short of spectacular in his first season with the Bulls, averaging 18.2/11.7/2.3 a night. Gasol is also averaging 2 blocks per game and has been much more of an interior defensive presence than I was willing to give him credit for when he signed as a free agent in July. Playing nearly 36 minutes a night, though, could spell doom for the 34 year-old big when April rolls around.

Sixth-year power forward Taj Gibson appeared set to be the Bulls’ starting power forward once Carlos Boozer was amnestied, but Gasol signed and Gibson was once again relegated to the bench when Gasol and Noah are healthy. Despite another season of limited opportunities and lack of appreciation, Gibson has been great this season, averaging 12.6 & 7.2 in just over 30 minutes a contest. Still an excellent defender down low and on the perimeter, Gibson has in addition become more aggressive on the offensive end, attempting well over half of his shots at the rim and making 67% of them. Small forward Mike Dunleavy has appeared and started in all 26 games and while he never really gives me cause for excitement, he also never really disappoints me, either. You could probably put Dunleavy on any NBA roster and he’d manage to average 10 points and 5 rebounds a night while shooting close to 40% from three-point territory. Eerie.

Nikola Mirotic will inevitably become my favorite NBA player. Of this, I’m sure. Yes, I am fully aware that Mirotic is not yet Dirk Nowitzki, or even Toni Kukoc. However, dare I say that Mirotic will wind up being better than the two? Saving that opinion for later… Mirotic’s line so far:

8.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.2 AST, .441 FG%, .400 3P%, .809 FT%, .603 TS%, 17.7 PER

That’s not a line we usually see from Rookie of the Year winners, but generally, rookies who contend for the award aren’t playing for teams that are legitimate title contenders. Head coach Tom Thibodeau seems to have an aversion to rookies, but most of his rookies weren’t “Niko.” Already a competent defender and very good rebounder, all Niko needs to do is become more aggressive on the offensive side (almost half of his field goal attempts have come from three-point territory), giving the Bulls another weapon on that end.

I’m still holding out hope that rookie small forward Doug McDermott will eventually become a productive NBA player. The problem is that I’m not quite sure he will ever be a productive player for the Bulls. Marquis Teague, “McD” is not, even on his worst day. Yet, it’s not a stretch to predict that as a Bull, McD may not give the team much more than Teague did. Out for another 5 to 7 weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, McDermott had limited opportunities before he was felled by injury, but even in those chances (11.6 minutes per), he was pretty awful:

3.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG, .423 FG%, .231 3P%, .500 FT%, .488 TS%, 4.1 PER

Now, I don’t believe McD is as bad as that line shows. However, when he returns later this season, he’s going to have to contribute on the offensive end, because I simply don’t see him providing much in the way of meaningful value on defense.

Nazr Mohammed, a CPS and Kenwood Academy product, can do no wrong in my eyes, so long

Cameron Bairstow, NBA player. No, seriously.

Cameron Bairstow, NBA player. No, seriously.

as he doesn’t have to play more than a few minutes per game. As for rookie big man Cameron Bairstow, I don’t know much else about him except that he makes rookie-year Carmelo Anthony look absolutely svelte, and that he needs to ditch that headbandthing and tube socks.

A semi-outlook.

Presently, the Bulls are 15th in scoring (102.2 per game), 11th in scoring defense (98.4), 10th in Offensive Rating (108.4) and 9th in Defensive Rating (104.3). There are still some kinks that need to be ironed out, but most of those kinks have been related to injuries, which in my opinion is a better obstacle to have to clear than inept play. With 56 games left to play, there is still plenty of time for the Bulls to find out just what they are, which I hope is a legitimate contender for an NBA title.

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The 2014-15 Chicago Bulls

From left: Forward Pau Gasol, guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah will be counted on to lead the 2014-15 Chicago Bulls to the promised land.  Charles Rex Arbogast -- AP Photo

From left: Forward Pau Gasol, guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah will be counted on to lead the 2014-15 Chicago Bulls to the promised land.  Charles Rex Arbogast — AP Photo

Tomorrow night, the Chicago Bulls will begin their 2014-15 campaign against the New York Knicks. All eyes will initially be on every move of point guard Derrick Rose, who is looking to play his first full, healthy season since his 2010-11 MVP year. When he crashes to the floor, makes a cut, takes a bump, or simply glances at one of his knees, there will be looks of worry on the faces of many fans of both the Bulls and NBA. After the feelings of unease subside, we will be able to see a Bulls team that arguably did more to improve its roster than any other NBA team this offseason except the Cleveland Cavaliers, who signed all-everything LeBron James in free agency and traded away players and picks to the Minnesota Timberwolves for forward Kevin Love.

After the Bulls were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by an upstart Washington Wizards squad while playing without Rose and Luol Deng (traded to the Cavs), it was clearer than ever that the Bulls were going to need to add players with offensive firepower. Defensively, the Bulls were and are are the league’s best, but when it was time for a bucket and Rose was unavailable, the Bulls were practically lost as all hell. During this past offseason, it was assumed that forward Carmelo Anthony would sign with the Bulls as a free agent, giving them the scoring punch they desperately needed. “Melo” decided to re-sign with the Knicks (thank God), and the Bulls turned their attention elsewhere.

AdditionsPau Gasol, Aaron Brooks, Doug McDermott, Cameron Baristow, Nikola Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore (statistics are from 13-14 season)

C/PF Pau Gasol (17.4 PPG, 9.7 TRB, 3.4 APG, 1.5 BLK, .480 FG%,.286 3P%, .736 FT%, 102 ORtg, 108 DRtg, .522 TS%, .482 eFG%). The 34 year-old Spaniard signed with the Bulls this offseason after six and a half mostly successful seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. A key part of two Lakers’ title teams, Gasol’s addition to the Bulls gives them a legitimate 7-footer who can score inside and out, as well as pass the ball proficiently from the low or high post. Gasol represents a significant upgrade over the departed Carlos Boozer, so expect fans to cheer for him just because of that fact.

PG Aaron Brooks (9 PPG, 1.9 TRB, 3.2 APG, .7 STL, .401 FG%, .387 3P%, .874 FT%, 105 ORtg, 110 DRtg, .518 TS%, .484 eFG%). Brooks, a former first-round pick of the Houston Rockets, spent 13-14 as a member of both the Rockets and Denver Nuggets, the latter of which he was traded to for forward Jordan Hamilton. The 6′, 160-lb point guard has played most of his career as a backup and will fill that very role for the Bulls. Brooks will have problems on the defensive end, but if he can offensively provide close to what he did for the Nuggets (11.9 PPG, 5.2 APG in 29 minutes per game), the signing will have been a very good one.

G/F Doug McDermott (For Creighton: 26.7 PPG, 7 TRB, 1.6 APG, .2 STL, .526 FG%, .449 3P%, .864 FT%, 127.4 ORtg, 106 DRtg, .644 TS%, .603 eFG%) Even though those numbers are from McDermott’s senior season at Creighton, they’re still wildly impressive. He won’t come close to matching them in the NBA, but with an added emphasis on the three-point shot over the years, players like McDermott will almost always have a spot on a roster. If he can use his “sneaky athleticism” to score easy buckets, he could become a viable offensive weapon for the Bulls.

Cameron Bairstow (For New Mexico: 20.4 PPG, 7.4 TRB, 1.6 APG, 1.5 BLK, .556 FG%, .333 FG%, .735 FT%, 122.9 ORtg, 99.6 DRtg, .611 TS%, .558 eFG%) It took three years for Bairstow to become a force at the University of New Mexico, and his senior season put him on the college basketball map. Although he is a bit undersized at 6’9″, 240, Bairstow is a very tough scrapper who will likely need to show defensive prowess to crack Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation.

Nikola Mirotic (For Real Madrid: 12.4 PPG, 4.6 TRB, 1.2 APG, 1.1 STL, .508 FG%, .461 3P%, .811 FT%) Mirotic has created a buzz since his draft rights were traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Bulls on the draft night of 2011. Widely regarded as one of the best players outside of the NBA before signing with the Bulls, Mirotic has developed into a legitimate “stretch four,” more than capable of putting the ball on the floor and driving to the basket. Mirotic showed some positive flashes this preseason (posted team’s second-highest DRtg at 94.3), but will need to add bulk and become a more competent defender in order to reach “Toni Kukoc status.”

G E’Twaun Moore (6.3 PPG, 1.7 TRB, 1.4 APG, .8 STL, .428 FG%, .354 3P%, .765 FT%, 102 ORtg, 109 DRtg, .513 TS%, .490 eFG%) The Purdue product was signed to give the team guard depth, but hopefully, he won’t be counted on, as that would mean that Rose, Hinrich, and Brooks are out of the mix.

Returning: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell, Nazr Mohammed

Derrick Rose (15.9 PPG, 3.2 TRB, 4.3 APG, .5 STL, .354 FG%, .340 3P%, .844 FT%, 88 ORtg, 105 DRtg, .446 TS%, .402 eFG%) DERRICK ROSE IS BACK!!! Seriously, he is. After tearing the meniscus in his right knee last season, Rose sat out the team’s final 71 games, electing to let the injury heal as close to completely as possible. He returned this summer to play for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup, where he backed up Kyrie Irving. The US won gold, but Rose did not shoot the ball even remotely well. However, he did seem to play very much under control, showed the burst that made him the league’s most explosive point guard at one time, and most importantly (to me), was an absolute hound on defense. In addition, he dealt with an incredibly grueling schedule without showing signs of wear and tear. With more offensive weaponry to play with, Rose won’t have to offensively bail the Bulls out nearly as much as he did in 10-11, and he should be a much better player for it.

C/PF Joakim Noah (12.6 PPG, 11.3 TRB, 5.4 APG, 1.5 BPG, 1.2 STL, .475 FG%, .737 FT%, 111 ORtg, 96 DRtg, .531 TS%, .475 eFG%) Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year (and first-time 1st-team All-NBA member) will have a new starting frontcourt mate in Gasol, which should make his life a hell of a lot easier. Noah put up very good numbers (10.4 PPG, 12.8 TRB, 4.6 APG, .536 TS%) against the Wizards in last year’s playoffs, but on the other end, C Nene Hilario had his way with him. With Noah guarding him most, Hilario went for (points/rebounds/assists) 17.8/6.5/3.25 while shooting 55% from the field as the Wizards won the series in five games. Noah likely won’t match his numbers from last year, but expect him to be a better player on both ends of the floor.

PF Taj Gibson (13 PPG, 6.8 TRB, 1.1 APG, 1.4 BPG, .479 FG%, .751 FT%, 102 ORtg, 100 DRtg, .524 TS%, .479 eFG%) Before Gasol signed with the Bulls, it seemed as if Taj would begin the 14-15 season as the team’s starting power forward. Things have changed with the Gasol signing, but Gibson will still be a huge piece to the puzzle. Easily one of the league’s better defenders since he entered the league in 2009, Gibson has also worked to improve his low post and mid-range game. Many of his buckets will come from putbacks and alley-oops, but he is slowly becoming a solid threat from 10-16 feet and his ability to run the floor as a big is unmatched by most.

G/F Mike Dunleavy (11.3 PPG, 4.2 TRB, 2.3 APG, .8 STL, .430 FG%, .380 3P%, .854 FT%, 108 ORtg, 102 DRtg, .549 TS%, .510 eFG%) There are certainly Bulls fans who feel McDermott should be starting over Dunleavy at the 3, and for all we know, Thibs may actually start McD over Mike. I’m guessing it won’t happen though, mainly because Dunleavy, while not a good defender, is much more familiar with what Thibs wants on that end of the floor. And what Thibs wants on defense, he gets, or you ride the pine. Although he isn’t a good defender, Dunleavy is a serviceable one, and he is offensively skilled enough to keep even a good defense honest.

G Kirk Hinrich (9.1 PPG, 2.6 TRB, 3.9 APG, 1.1 STL, .393 FG%, .351 3P%, .768 FT%, 100 ORtg, 102 DRtg, .494 TS%, .461 eFG%) Hinrich isn’t a bad guy. I don’t dislike him. I’m pretty sure he’s well-respected among his family, friends, and peers. But, damn, there wasn’t another backup guard available? Does Hinrich have incriminating photos of Gar Forman or John Paxson? Both? There was a time when Hinrich was an above-average player, but those days are long gone. Let’s just hope that Hinrich gets in the way of opposing ball-handlers and shoots at least 40% from the floor.

G/F Jimmy Butler (13.1 PPG, 4.9 TRB, 2.6 APG, 1.9 STL, .397 FG%, .280 3P%, .769 FT%, 108 ORtg, 100 DRtg, .522 TS%, .446 eFG%) Make no mistake about it: Butler couldn’t hit a shot to save his life during the 13-14 season. With Rose out due to injury, more of the onus to score fell on Butler’s shoulders than should have, and the result was a paltry 39.7% from the floor and sub-30% from deep. Despite his shooting woes, Butler still made the NBA’s All-Defense Second Team and for the second straight postseason, averaged more than 17 points per game. If Butler becomes even a league-average shooter from the floor and three, the Bulls’ offense will be even more potent.

G Tony Snell (4.5 PPG, 1.6 TRB, .9 APG, .384 FG%, .320 3P%, .756 FT%, 97 ORtg, 104 DRtg, .489 TS%, .469 eFG%) Snell had a great summer and must be looking to carry that play over into the regular season, because he shot the ball terribly this preseason. At 16 minutes per game, Snell played more as a rookie than I predicted, and if given the same playing time, could prove to be a very effective scorer. He and McDermott will make the reserves a good offensive unit if they’re knocking down shots and slashing to the basket. Also, Snell has the length and athleticism to be a good defender in the Bulls’ system, provided he realizes that when on the defensive end, one’s focus should be on defense.

C/F Nazr Mohammed (1.6 PPG, 2.2 TRB, .3 APG. .4 BPG, .429 FG%, .533 FT%, 90 ORtg, 97 DRtg, .445 TS%, .429 eFG%) Chicago Public Schools (Kenwood Academy) product Nazr Mohammed returns for his 17th NBA season. At the age of 36, he will be counted on to give Jo, Pau and Taj breathers whenever necessary. Nazr can’t be counted on to do too much, but he is long and an adequate rim defender.

Outlook: Despite the fact that many “pundits” and “experts” are picking the new-look Cavaliers to win the Central Division and Eastern Conference, I firmly believe the Bulls will come away with those titles. While the Cavs look impressive on paper, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love still seem allergic to defense and outside of LeBron, Shawn Marion, and Anderson Varejao, there doesn’t seem to be a player on the roster who is even an okay defender. The Bulls team that reached the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals was one that had only one real offensive threat, and that was Derrick Rose. This Bulls team has Rose, Gasol, McDermott, Mirotic, Brooks, and don’t forget Noah, a big capable of dishing out five assists a night. All of those players are at least fairly capable of creating for themselves, and all of them except McDermott are more than equipped to create for others. Combine the newfound offense with a staunch defensive mentality and I believe we have a Bulls team that could prove itself better than the Cavs when all is said and done. Obviously, the games must be played, but it shouldn’t take long to figure out that when healthy, this Bulls team should be considered one of the favorites to win it all.

Quickly, now: Melo stays in NY; Pau meditates, joins Bulls

Melo Max Power.

I really didn’t want Carmelo Anthony to sign with the Bulls in free agency. Now, I’d long anticipated that he’d end up re-signing with the Knicks, but I was also aware that besides Houston and potentially Miami, Chicago was a suitor that offered him a great chance to win more than lose, and do so much sooner than later. Granted, signing elsewhere would result in Melo losing a substantial amount of money, but I figured that if he was really willing to take a pay cut in order to have a better shot at winning a championship, playing for the Bulls would be his best option. I already posted my disinterest in seeing Melo become a Bull. While his decision to re-sign with the Knicks disappoints some Bulls fans, I’m fine with his decision. LeBron coming back to the Central Division certainly presents another hurdle for the Bulls, but I feel a rotation of Rose, Butler, Snell, Mirotic and DJ Augustin (soon, hopefully), Taj, Pau Gasol (read below), McDermott, and Noah will be strong enough to come out of the East, so long as health isn’t an issue. Melo will go back to more familiar surroundings and hope that the summer of 2015 brings him some much-needed help. The Bulls are still lacking a scoring wing, but they won’t be hamstrung by a contract for a player that would not have surely gotten them over the proverbial hump.  This makes me happy. I’m still stuck with McDermott and the uncertainty of Derrick Rose’s health for the rest of the offseason, but no Melo makes me happy.

It’s not 2008 Pau, but it’s something.

image

Remember when the Bulls wanted to trade for power forward Pau Gasol back in 2006-08, but were unwilling to gut their roster in order to do so? I wasn’t opposed to the Bulls’ strategy; I simply didn’t feel Gasol was worth multiple young players and picks, and Gasol was in his prime then. However, I was tired of watching Ben Wallace not live up to his gaudy contract and wanted to see a semblance of a post presence for a change. Well, the Bulls acquired a post presence, Carlos Boozer, in the summer of 2010 and let’s just say that didn’t work out as intended. Now, after a failed attempt by the Bulls to lure Carmelo Anthony away from the bum ass Knicks, it appears that after some meditation (and probably a brief, cold phone call from Kobe), Gasol has decided to join them.

Gasol, 34, is coming off of a 13-14 season in which he averaged almost 17.5 points per game while pulling down nearly 10 rebounds per contest. After seeing his FG%, TS%, and eFG% drop for four consecutive seasons, Gasol had a bounce-back season of sorts last year, also averaging 3.4 assists per game as the Lakers had to navigate through most of the campaign without Kobe Bryant.

Pau is no longer the offensive threat he once was, but he and a healthy Rose could still work wonders in the pick-and-pop game. Likely to start next to Noah, the two will immediately become the best passing big man duo in the NBA. Taj Gibson will go back to a reserve role, which he is probably best suited for on a title-contending team, and Nikola Mirotic, who should be an official Chicago Bull any day now, could be a mentee to Gasol. Clearly, Gasol is not the uber-scoring wing the Bulls went into offseason in need of. A silver lining, though, is we won’t have to watch Boozer anymore, as he will either be traded or amnestied very soon. That much, is great.

 

Doug McDermott is just so…Bulls

The 2014 NBA Draft took place last week, and it was one of the deeper drafts in recent memory. Armed with the 16th and 19th overall pick, there were a few options for the Bulls. Keep the two picks and add cheap, young pieces for the future. Trade both picks to move up in the draft. Trade both picks in order to acquire a “superstar,” like Kevin Love, or even Carmelo Anthony.

Going into the draft, the Bulls needed a backup point guard, shooting guard or guard who can handle the ball well, along with a backup power forward or center. I had dreamt of the Bulls selecting Michigan State products Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, and it had nothing to do with school allegiance, but fit and more importantly, talent. Harris is a bulldog of a shooting guard who can shoot it from distance as well as defend his ass off. Payne is a prototypical stretch power forward who can step outside and knock down shots as well as maneuver in the low post. Yet, there were growing reports that the Bulls were looking to move up in the draft. ‘That’s fine,’ I thought. Fine, so long as the reports that the Bulls were targeting former Michigan guard Nik Stauskas and former Creighton guard/forward Doug McDermott were false. They weren’t. Of course, they weren’t.

The Bulls traded the 16th and 19th picks to the Denver Nuggets for the 11th pick…who happened to be McDermott. Oy freaking vey, Bulls.

Don’t get me wrong; McDermott was one hell of a college basketball player. Rather, he was one hell of a college basketball scorer. In his senior year and first in the Big East Conference, McDermott finished with this line: 27.7 PPG, .541 FG%, .463 3P%, .864 FT%, 5.8 FTA (career-high), .644 TS%, .603 eFG%, and only a 7.9 TOV% despite a USG% of 36.2. Simply put, a college basketball player shouldn’t be able to score in that manner, and with such proficiency. I don’t care if you’re playing in what is undoubtedly the weakest conference in NCAA history, to post those numbers over an entire season is mind-boggling and worthy of recognition.

However, McDermott played in a watered-down Big East for the 2013-14 season. Gone from the once-powerful conference was Louisville, Pitt, Syracuse, Notre Dame, UConn, and Cincy. And those schools weren’t nearly bottom-feeders, either:

  • Louisville won 31 games and reached the Sweet 16…without Chane Benahan, who was dismissed from the team.
  • Pitt won 26 games and finished a solid fifth in the ACC.
  • Syracuse, a 2013 Final Four team, won 28 games and finished second in the ACC, behind regular season and conference tournament champion, Virginia.
  • Notre Dame, another new member of the ACC, started a very respectable 8-4 but went 7-13 in the games Jerian Grant missed due to suspension.
  • All UConn did was win 32 games and the 2014 NCAA title.
  • Cincinnati played stingy defense all year long as it led them to 27 wins and a share of the American Athletic Conference’s regular-season title.

The Big East was not long ago a conference that could send 7 or 8 teams to the tournament, with ease. A few of those teams would enter as national title favorites, and it wasn’t a surprise when one of them came out on top. The 2013-14 Big East was just…not good. Only three schools, Villanova, Creighton, and Marquette, found themselves in the AP Top 25 all season, and only Villanova and Creighton were ranked over the final two months. Providence made the tournament because they won the conference tournament and Xavier clearly bribed someone to go dancing, because their best win of the season was probably against Cincy, at a neutral site.

When someone tries to argue that because McDermott lit up the Big East, he will do the same in the NBA, I point to the quality of the conference today, and not five years ago, when it was arguably the best and deepest conference in the entire nation. Point out McDermott’s gaudy offensive numbers and I’ll inform you that Creighton’s offense, most likely devised by McDermott’s dad, who is also the head coach, runs through Doug. It’s not so much that “McD” averaged nearly 28 a night while the Creighton’s next-leading scorer, fellow senior Ethan Wragge averaged not even 10.5. McD attempted 17.9 shots a game while the team’s next three leading scorers didn’t attempt that many as a trio. Yes, McDermott is listed as a small forward, but he played the 4 in college. So, I’m not all that impressed by the fact he pulled down 7.5 rebounds per game over his career, because he was not doing it from a guard or primarily wing position on the floor. Watching McDermott go to work in the low post, which he did fairly often, was a pleasure. However, he’ll have to likely scrap his post game now that he’s in the NBA because he will be constantly going against defenders who are longer and more athletic than the competition he faced in college, whether in the Missouri Valley Conference or Big East. McDermott could pattern his game after Ray Allen’s, but he doesn’t have the foot speed or quickness to consistently run away from defenders while trying to maneuver around teammates’ screens.

In addition, McD is a barely average ball-handler, so you really can’t call isolation plays for him at the NBA level. Despite playing over 30 minutes a game as well as posting a USG% over 32 during his college career, he averaged only 1.3 assists per contest. Carmelo Anthony managed to at least average 2.2 APG during his one season at Syracuse, and “Melo” can certainly be a black hole on offense. And while his offensive shortcomings aren’t many, on the defensive end, McD is a flat-out non-factor.

Explain to me how someone can spend so much time on the floor, year in and year out, and not even average half a steal or block per game. If you were to combine his steal and block numbers, he doesn’t even average half a steal and block per game, combined. Monta Ellis is not a great, very good, or even good defender, really. But Ellis can get you two steals per night, and the same goes for a number of other NBA players. This is due to athleticism, mostly, which McD was not exactly blessed with. A team can’t even count on McD to play the passing lane and come away with a steal or, when guarding a smaller player, to swat a shot, or at least alter the course of it.

I’m very aware that Bulls’ head coach Tom Thibodeau is a defensive wizard and with just about any collection of 12 guys, can produce a good defensive unit. But the NBA, to an extent, is still about individual play; a game of one-on-one within a team game. McDermott is 6’7″ and 220 lbs., and will probably mostly play small forward in the NBA. It’s certainly a position of strength, whether you mention LeBron James, Melo, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Rudy Gay, or even Nic Batum and Luol Deng. Yes, Thibs’ defensive scheme calls more for team defense, but there will definitely be times when McD finds himself on the perimeter, all alone, stuck with the task of keeping LeBron or Durant in front of him. I don’t like McD’s chances in that situation. Ever.

Could McDermott wind up becoming a good NBA player? Of course he could. He’s much better than, say, Adam Morrison, another prolific college scorer who beat up on inferior competition over four years. However, the NBA is becoming increasingly athletic and while that doesn’t mean there’s no longer room for those of less-than-stellar athletic ability, it means those guys will essentially be relegated to role player status. This is especially true for guards and wings, and if McD doesn’t find himself at the 3, the only other position he’ll man is the 2.

Best-case scenario: McDermott ends up being a very good reserve; coming off the bench to provide instant offense and take advantage of opponents’ second units. Think a less athletic, less talented Paul Pierce.

Worst-case scenario: McDermott finds it much harder to score in the NBA and his lack of defensive prowess results in him becoming more of a detriment to his team. Think a taller, bigger Jimmer Fredette.

I’m still irked about the McDermott deal. Not only did they give up draft value, but they also took on the contract of Anthony Randolph, who has been a disappointment to this point in his NBA career. While one would think the Bulls set out to save money, they actually lost cap space with the deal. Randolph could be moved, but it would have to be part of a package.

And yet, I wasn’t surprised by this move. Really, I wasn’t. Trading the 16th and 19th pick along with a future first-rounder to move into the top 7 would have been too grand a move for a franchise that, outside of the trade for Dennis Rodman and Elton Brand/Tyson Chandler swap, doesn’t really make bold moves. “Thibs” definitely is fond of more experienced players, as two recent first-round draft picks who spent four years in college, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, are projected to start next season. So again, this move makes sense when considering the preferences of Thibs. When taking into account that the Bulls are still without a backup point guard and that if Carlos Boozer is amnestied, there’s no front court depth behind Gibson and Joakim Noah, this moves makes no sense at all. And if the Bulls don’t go into the 2014-15 season with Melo, LeBron, Love, or European prospect Nikola Mirotic, the move definitely makes no sense and will go down as a big, fat, red F in my grade book.

I don’t blame McDermott for any of this. And while the deal still has not given me any reason to celebrate it, I’m no longer really angered by it. This, because McDermott is just so…Bulls.

Just say no to Melo, Gar. Just say no.

Regretting that trade yet, Melo?  Nathaniel S. Butler -- Getty

Regretting that trade yet, Melo? Nathaniel S. Butler — Getty

Disclaimer: I am a fan of New York Knicks’ small forward, Carmelo Anthony, and have been since he helped lead the Syracuse Orange to an NCAA title in 2003. He may be overrated to some, but oddly enough, I feel he is a bit underrated. In my unabashed opinion, “Melo” is the NBA’s best all-around scorer who has mostly been a victim of being on the wrong team, at the wrong damn time. Or something like that.

That said, I don’t want to see Melo on the Bulls’ roster at the start of the 2014-15 season. In fact, I don’t even want Chicago Bulls GM Gar Forman to send Melo a warm text message, call and ask about his kids, or even like any of his Instagram posts. If Phil Jackson calls and attempts to gauge the Bulls’ interest in acquiring Melo in a sign-and-trade deal, I hope Forman bursts into laughter before asking, “Wait. Are you serious?” before bursting into laughter again. When Melo decides to opt out of his current contract and test the free agent market, as he has said he will do, the most Gar should do is feign interest in the hopes that a rival grossly overpays for Melo’s services. Melo has said he’ll take a pay cut, although that was in  response to a question about his willingness to re-sign with the Knicks. Say Melo decides he’ll take a pay cut to sign with the Bulls. Just say no to Melo, Gar. Just say no.

Despite my belief that Melo is much better than advertised (28 PPG, 45/39/84 FG%/3P%/FT%, and PER of over 24 the last two seasons, plus a great rebounder and one of the best in the L at getting to the FT line), I want Forman to stay as far away from his as possible.

Even if Melo takes a pay cut, the Bulls are strapped for cash.

At the current moment, the Bulls have seven players signed for the 2014-15 season: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Tony Snell, and Mike Dunleavy. Combined, they make $62.7 million, so obviously, the Bulls would have to be creative if they wanted to acquire Melo. This, in spite of the fact that the NBA salary cap will actually rise to a little over $63 million for the start of next season. If Boozer is amnestied, which is expected, the Bulls’ salary commitments drop to nearly $46 million, leaving them with $17 million to spend on not only Melo, but another four players as well. The Bulls will select 16th and 19th in this June’s draft, and those salary commitments total just south of $3 million. It’s highly unlikely those two picks won’t make the roster, so the Bulls will be shelling out nearly $50 million in salary, and that’s without Melo and another four players to fill out the roster. The luxury-tax threshold will jump to $77 million in 14-15, so it’s conceivable the Bulls could spend the remaining amount on Melo and parts, but it’s also very conceivable they won’t, because you know, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf ain’t really about that life. Of course, the Bulls could trade Dunleavy and/or Gibson to free up cap space, but the Bulls preemptively dumped salary in order to make a run at a top-notch free agent in the summer of 2010, and they ended up with…Boozer. Simply put, the Bulls are a bit hamstrung, mostly because of Boozer’s contract, which likely won’t be moved via trade. So if they want Melo, they’ll have to give away valuable parts in a sign-and-trade, or simply move players to free up cap space with the hopes they’d land Melo. In both situations, I’m not sure the Bulls would come away a better team.

The Bulls should be looking to get younger; add players with upside.

Look, Melo is not old. He turned 30 not even a week ago. Technically, one could say he’s in the middle of his prime if we consider an NBA player’s prime to be in the 27-32 age range. Still, I don’t see any real room for development in Melo’s game. At this point, he is what he is, and personally, I think he’s been at his best these past two seasons. But generally, we start to see a bit of a decline once a player hits 30. At 32, 33, Melo may very well still be a very good or even great player, but I don’t think he’ll be as good as he was at 30. Of course, this is all conjecture and Melo could become an even better player by then, but I’ll bet that while he’ll still be very good, maybe even great, he’ll start to show signs that he is a player on his way out, rather than one just starting to find his way. If the Bulls still want to build around Rose, who won’t be 26 until the end of October, they’ll have to add players who will grow with him, not ones who come in with their own identity, accustomed to doing things a certain way.

Once the Bulls realize they’re in a relatively fortunate position, they will see the light.

This year’s NBA Draft will be a deep one, and there are teams like the Bulls that will be picking in the teens, but don’t view their draft slot as a total crapshoot. It would not be beyond belief that a future All-Star is picked after 15th, and we could easily see a 2nd-rounder or two be a significant contributor for years to come. Again, the Bulls will pick 16th and 19th, high enough to land an impact player, but probably not high enough to land a “game-changer.” In my world, the Bulls take Michigan St. power forward Adreian Payne with the 16th pick and Michigan combo guard Nik Stauskas with the 19th. In Payne, they would get an ideal stretch 4, but also one who isn’t afraid to go to work in the low post and scrap for rebounds. Stauskas is an excellent shooter from long-range, but worked hard to escape the “one-dimensional” label and established himself this past season as a player who can not only hit the 3, but create for himself and others.

Hopefully, the Bulls will re-sign D.J. Augustin and have a 9-man rotation that looks like this: PG Derrick Rose, SG Jimmy Butler, SF Mike Dunleavy, PF Taj Gibson (assuming Boozer is amnestied), C Joakim Noah, PG D.J. Augustin, G Nik Stauskas, G/F Tony Snell, F/C Adreian Payne. Only one of them, Dunleavy, will be 30 when the season starts. Pretty damn good. This doesn’t even take into account that the Bulls still own the rights to 6’10” forward, Nikola Mirotic, who is only 23 and already arguably the best hooper in all of Europe. And oh, the Bulls will also get the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2015 1st-round pick if the Cavs make the playoffs. That pick could be as high as 14th. They will also get the Sacramento Kings’ 2015 1st-round pick so long as it’s not in the top 10, and if it is, the Bulls will own the rights to that pick for the following two years, with the same stipulations. The Bulls need to realize that they still have a young Rose, 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year and 1st-team All-NBAer Noah, a good power forward in Taj, promising wing in Butler, as well as future 1st-round draft picks and Mirotic. Desperate, the Bulls should not be.

In summation.

Calling the 2013-14 Bulls offense “anemic” would be a gross understatement. They finished dead last (30 out of 30) in points per game (93.7) and field goal percentage (43%). In terms of pace, the Bulls finished 13-14 29th (90.2), 28th in Offensive Rating (102.5), and 24th in three-point field goal percentage (35%). They’re in the middle of the pack in their ability to get to the free-throw line and were one of the worst in the league at protecting the ball. Their saving grace was their willingness to play defense as if their lives depended on it.

Obviously, adding Carmelo Anthony would help the Bulls improve tremendously on the offensive end. But, I worry about the Bulls’ current cap situation, Melo’s ability to grow in the coming years, and most importantly, I feel the Bulls have enough viable pieces (should Rose come back healthy, Boozer gets amnestied, and they draft reasonably well) to contend for a title in 2014-15 and beyond. It would make the most sense for Melo to try and navigate his way to Chicago, but what the Bulls would have to sacrifice would ultimately be too much. You can look, but don’t touch, Gar.

Quickly, now: In Sparty I Trust.

Yes, Tom. I trust you that much. -- Getty Images

Yes, Tom. I love you that much. — Getty Images

Well, it’s NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament time. Sort of. I know there were some “play-in” games played or there will be, or…they don’t matter. This is about the Michigan State Spartans and also, their head coach, Tom Izzo. Yes, he of the 465-186 record over 19 years at MSU. The same Izzo who has led Sparty to seven regular season Big 10 titles, four Big 10 conference tournament titles, compiled an NCAA tournament record of 39-15 and navigated his team through the maze that is the NCAA bracket to six Final Fours. He has never had a senior class that didn’t appear in a Final Four and of course, he has a national title ring from 2000. And the man who is 12-4 in the opening round of the tournament lets his players know that he is doing battle with them, come March. “[He] always tell us, ‘Get me through the first day, I’ll get you through the second,'” said former Spartan do-everything hooper, Draymond Green.

This year’s team began the season ranked second in the country in the Associated Press and coaches poll. In their second game of the season, Sparty beat then-top ranked Kentucky at the United Center in what was mostly an excellent game between a MSU team with one surefire first-round pick (shooting guard Gary Harris) and UK one with an entire starting lineup that could ultimately end up all being first-round picks when their collegiate careers are over. MSU then enjoyed a three-week stay atop the polls before seemingly, the Spartans just couldn’t stay healthy. Or hit free throws. Or not turn the ball over. Or simply, play good damn basketball. After going 18-2 in their first 20 games, with their only losses coming at home to North Carolina ( starters PG Keith Appling, PF Adreian Payne and Harris shot a combined 16-40 from the floor) and at home to Michigan (both Payne and starting G/F Branden Dawson missed the game due to injury), Sparty went 5-6 to finish the regular season, losing on the road to Ohio St. by 2 in the finale. Thankfully, Harris got over some of his injury woes, Payne’s foot healed, Dawson’s broken hand healed (don’t slam a desk with your fist during a film session, kids), Appling and his bum wrist appeared to turn a corner, and anyone else who even thought about getting sick or hurt realized that the conference tournament was fast approaching.

Three days, three games. MSU dispatched of Northwestern easily and despite the 83-75 final score, did the same to Wisconsin. With a chance to exact a little revenge on rival Michigan in the conference tournament title game after being swept in the regular season, Sparty played arguably its most impressive game to date. In a 69-55 win, MSU outrebounded a top-10 Michigan team by 14, shot 50% from the field compared to 32% for Michigan, and held Wolverines sharpshooter Nik Stauskas to only four points in the second half after he scored thirteen in the first.

With conference tournament title in hand, MSU waited for the NCAA tournament selection committee to tell them what seed they’d earned as well as where they’d be playing their first weekend. Somehow, some way, the committee tabbed Sparty as a 4 seed (Louisville, also a 4, got the shaft, too) and banished them to Spokane, Washington, where they will play the 13th-seeded Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens at 4:40 PM, ET, in the East Region. The Blue Hens, of the Colonial Athletic Conference, are dancing after beating William & Mary in the conference tournament title game, 75-74.

Despite a regular season and conference tournament title, the Blue Hens should prove to be absolutely no match for the upstart (can a team that began the season with serious title aspirations at any point be considered an upstart?) Spartans, who appear to be fully healthy and determined to show that their shaky stretch was attributed more to missing key players because of injury than subpar play. Delaware is an average offensive team, which certainly won’t be good enough to beat MSU. On defense, they’re one of the worst in the country, which should make Sparty’s task even easier.

I wouldn’t say that MSU is the hottest team in the country right now. That title probably belongs to North Carolina Central University. However, biases aside, I felt before the regular season started that if healthy and not at each other’s throats, this Michigan St. team could easily find itself in contention for a spot in the Final Four. To hell with ESPN analysts picking the Green and White to go all the way, because, to hell with them. Despite some disappointments in years’ past, I’m confident this team can do more in this year’s tournament than make some noise. In Sparty I Trust. GO GREEN. GO WHITE.

2013-14 Michigan State basketball: NCAA title or bust (basically)

Senior PF Adreian Payne (left) and sophomore SG Gary Harris are key to the Spartans' success in 2013-14.  Rick Osentoski -- USA Today

Senior PF Adreian Payne (left) and sophomore SG Gary Harris are key to the Spartans’ success in 2013-14. Rick Osentoski — USA Today

The last time we saw the Michigan State Spartans men’s basketball team was in the Sweet 16, in Indianapolis, IN. After demolishing Memphis in the third round of the tournament, it appeared they had the “momentum” necessary to carry it past its next opponent, the Duke University Blue Devils. Unfortunately, momentum doesn’t score or defend, and former Blue Devil Seth Curry torched the Spartans for 29 points on 6-9 shooting from deep as Duke eliminated Sparty from the 2013 tournament, 71-61.

Former Spartan center Derrick Nix struggled rather badly in that game, and the same goes for senior power forward Adreian Payne. The two combined for 23 points and 19 rebounds, but hit on only 6-20 from the field. Payne, an improved three-point shooter in 2012-13, went 1-5 from long-range against Duke. Branden Dawson, perhaps still not quite comfortable in his return from a torn ACL the season before, was mostly quiet. Curry was able to score easily while being defended mostly by then-freshman shooting guard Gary Harris, usually a very good defender. However, Harris had been dealing with a bum shoulder for much of the season, and played poorly on both ends, scoring only six points on 2-11 shooting from the field. Team leader and starting point guard Keith Appling scored a very effective 16 points, but committed zero assists against four turnovers. If it weren’t for some much-needed energy from reserves (PG) Travis Trice and (G/F) Denzel Valentine, MSU could have very well lost by more than ten points.

Departing: C Derrick Nix (graduation)

That’s it. Only one player will be missing from a team that finished with an overall record of 27-9, and 13-5 in conference play in 2012-13. However, the squad lost one of my favorite Spartans in recent memory, as well as a 6-9, 270-lb load who only improved each year during his four seasons as a Spartan. The big man, who my girlfriend would so often affectionately refer to as “Chonky Wonky,” finished 2012-13 averaging nearly 10 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists and just over a steal per game. Head coach Tom Izzo realized that while it wasn’t always pretty, the duo of Payne and Nix was mostly effective, as Nix’s ability to operate from the low post combined with Payne’s range allowed the Spartans’ perimeter players to be even more dangerous with or without the ball in their hands.

Arriving: PF/C Gavin Schilling (incoming freshman), G/F Alvin Ellis III (incoming freshman), F Kenny Kaminski (redshirt)

Gary Harris was a top-10 recruit and arguably the nation’s best high school shooting guard when he signed his letter of intent with the Spartans. Besides Harris and a few others, Izzo doesn’t have a great history of signing large-profile prep basketball players. He’s generally in the mix for most, as I believe that most preps, regardless of status, like Izzo as a coach. But when it comes time to make a decision, Sparty usually is the bridesmaid while the more attractive Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and sometimes even Indiana, are the bride. This was the case with Duke freshman small forward Jabari Parker, a Chicago prep star from Simeon Vocational Academy. It appeared that when Parker’s buzz was biggest, he was headed to East Lansing. He suffered a foot injury and missed out on summer ball in 2012 while Kansas freshman small forward Andrew Wiggins wrecked it (and reclassified to the class of 2013 from 2014) and overtook the throne of “Latest prep to be prematurely compared to LeBron James.” Then, with seemingly all of the buzz surrounding Wiggins, Parker picked Duke as his resting stop for the next 6-7 months.

So, in typical Izzo fashion, he scrambled and came away with two solid recruits, Schilling and Ellis III. Ellis III is a smooth athlete and likely to play a role between those of Harris and Dawson, but we won’t be seeing much of him this season because of MSU’s depth in their backcourt and on the wings. The German-born Schilling is a three-star prep out of Las Vegas who was late to the recruiting scene. At 6’9″ and weighing 240 pounds, Schilling is the type of low-post banger that Izzo likes, but much more athletic than say, former Spartan Antonio Smith. Kaminski is a 6-8 shooter who was expected to contribute last year, but tore his right labrum in an offseason workout and was given a medical redshirt. He has lost weight and told the media that he has worked on his shot incessantly. If the improvement shows in games, Kaminski will be able to easily play the stretch 4 for the Spartans when Izzo runs out a smaller lineup.

Projected Starters: PG Keith Appling, SG Gary Harris, SF Branden Dawson, PF Adreian Payne, C Matt Costello

Appling and Harris (when the latter is healthy) form arguably the country’s best starting backcourt, and Sparty goes as they go, for the most part. Appling is a senior and will more than likely be an improved player this season, but I doubt we’re going to see the kind of Cleaves-, Lucas- or Green-like leadership from him that Izzo wants. Harris was overlooked during a very good freshman season, but should be “100%” and ready to cement his status as one of the nation’s best two-way players, and possible NBA Draft lottery pick. Dawson was great as a freshman before tearing his ACL, and looked tentative at times during his sophomore campaign. Hopefully, with an increased role and more comfort in his knee’s ability, he’ll return to being a virtually unstoppable force around the glass, especially on the offensive end. Payne surprised many, including myself, by returning to East Lansing for his senior season. The 2013 draft class was not a strong one and Payne was coming off of a season in which he was one of the best big men in what was widely regarded as the best conference in the land. However, Payne wanted another shot at a NCAA title and to also fulfill a promise to his late grandmother that he would graduate from college. Per 36 minutes, Payne averaged 15 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in 2012-13 while shooting well over 50% from the field and close to 40% from 3. Oh, he also shot 85% from the free throw line and increased his scoring average each month, from November through March. Payne may not hit those averages, but he’ll come close in 2013-14. Costello is a 6-9, 240-lb sophomore forward who scored a grand total of 44 points last season, and now he’ll (at least early) be counted on to do most of the replacing of the departed Nix. He was Michigan’s Mr. Basketball for 2012, but was barely a role player for last year’s Spartans. Starting alongside four players who are more offensively capable than him should make it easy for Costello to focus on playing good defense and rebounding well, as he’s still not someone you would count on to get you buckets at any critical stretch of a game.

Guard Travis Trice, left, and guard/forward Denzel Valentine lead MSU's reserves.

Guard Travis Trice, left, and guard/forward Denzel Valentine lead MSU’s reserves.

Reserves: Travis Trice, G/F Denzel Valentine, Schilling, Ellis III, PF/C Alex Guana, G Keenan Wetzel, Kaminski, G Russell Byrd, PF/C Emmett Dacey, G Dan Chapman, F Trevor Bohnhoff

It’s a luxury in sports to have depth, especially at positions most integral to the team’s success. So when Appling and Harris come off the floor, coming on to replace them most times are the very competent Trice and Valentine. I don’t believe MSU would enjoy the same success with Trice and Valentine starting in place of Appling and Harris, but up against other teams’ second units, I like Sparty’s chances with Trice and Valentine in the backcourt. Trice, a junior, is great in transition and should be happy that Izzo plans to run a little bit more this season, where Trice can either push the tempo or pull up for a transition 3. After somehow finishing 2012-13 shooting 32% from the field, but 40% from 3, Trice will have to improve his overall shooting as well as a less-than-stellar 1.47/1 assist-to-turnover ratio, in 13-14. In his freshman season, Valentine proved himself to be the Spartans’ most versatile player. Valentine can effectively play positions 1-4 on both ends, and if forced to, could probably be a serviceable center in some situations. His per 36 numbers in 12-13 (8.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.2 apg) don’t even point out the energy he brings to play, almost immediately. To compare, Valentine is college basketball’s Andre Iguodala. Expect Schilling to at the least be a rotation player, averaging between 10-15 minutes per game. If he brings the physicality he’s showed in practice and exhibition to regular season games, he could play a role that Dawson played as a freshman, just in the low post. Appling and Harris are excellent at penetrating to the rim, but as anyone who’s watched basketball knows, not every venture to the rim ends with a made basket, or even a shot attempt. Kaminski and Byrd will have to provide above-average long-range shooting to keep opposing defenses honest. This would not only enable Appling, Harris, Trice and Valentine to drive the lane more frequently and easily, but give Payne the room he needs to operate on the low block. Guana was a bit player last season, and Dacey’s role was lesser than that. If they’re on the floor, Sparty is either ahead or behind by 30 late, or half the team can’t play because of injury. Ellis III could end up redshirting in 13-14. Wetzel, Chapman and Bohnhoff probably look good in practice, but practice aren’t games and vice versa.

Non-conference schedule: (H) McNeese St, (N) Kentucky, (H) Columbia, (H) Portland, (N) Virginia Tech, (H) Mount St. Mary’s, (H) North Carolina, (A) Oakland, (H) North Florida, (A) Texas, (H) New Orleans

Sparty played the toughest schedule, if not one of the toughest, in 2012-13. They started by losing to UConn in an air base hangar in German and beat a top-10 Kansas team in a neutral location just four days later. A week later, MSU held on at home to beat a good Boise St. team and just eight days after that, lost on the road to a Miami team that would go on to win the ACC regular season and conference tournament titles. Less than two weeks after the Canes took it to Sparty, a markedly improved Loyola team gave them problems at the Breslin. Non-conference play concluded two weeks later, as MSU beat a down (but still talented) Texas team at home by 11.

A quick glance at the the non-conference schedule for 13-14 and it’s easy to see that once again, Sparty has a tough lineup ahead. Kentucky is preseason number one in every poll imaginable, and have hauled in what many college basketball analysts are saying is the greatest freshman class in college basketball history, even better than Michigan’s “Fab Five.” Virginia Tech was awful last year, but should be marginally improved, at least. A nationally televised home game against North Carolina will be one the “Izzone” gets amped for. Oakland was beaten by Sparty by 18 last year, but the score wasn’t indicative of what actually happened. Sparty will travel to Oakland this year and be the fourth ranked opponent to face the Grizzlies in the first six weeks of 13-14. Basketball-wise (and hell, football-wise, too), Texas just isn’t very good right now, but they should still finish ahead of West Virginia, Texas Tech and TCU in the Big 12. And after a late-January road game against pesky Iowa, MSU will travel to New York City, where they will play Georgetown at Madison Square Garden.

Conference Schedule(A/H) Penn St., (A/H) Indiana, (H/A) Ohio St., (H) Minnesota, (A/H) Northwestern, (A/H) Illinois, (H/A) Michigan, (A/H) Iowa

There are no surprises here, and you can be sure that there will be no nights off for the Spartans, even against Penn St. There is no Wisconsin on the schedule this year, which is both good and bad. Sparty swept the two games the teams played against each other last year, but those games always take a lot out of the Badgers’ opposition. I’m not a fan of MSU ending the regular season against Ohio St., but as long as it’s to put the finishing touches on a Big 10 regular season title, all will be well.

The Outlook.

Disregarding most Big 10 predictions that Michigan State will win the conference is easy when you already believed they are an extremely talented basketball team. It was great to see Nix finally become a consistent, productive player, but this team could be even more potent in 13-14, offensively. Whereas a part of the offense was always going to rely on halfcourt sets with Nix on the floor, his absence (and a smaller, more athletic frontcourt in turn) will give Izzo’s squad multiple chances, with Appling and Harris as primary ballhandlers, to score baskets in transition or simply create mismatches when possessing the ball. The Big 10 isn’t as bogged down as some would like you to believe, but it’s nowhere near a run-n-gun conference, either, so any easy baskets will be of an even larger importance in a conference in which points come at a premium. The game against Kentucky will be the largest regular season game in school history, and will be played at the United Center. The nonconference schedule isn’t as strong as last year’s, but will still prepare the team for conference play. And while the Big 10 isn’t as top-heavy as it was last year, it’s arguably deeper this year, with expected improvements from Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Penn St. as well.

MSU has just as good of a chance as any other school to win the NCAA title. The starting five is better than most, and the reserve unit is versatile and hard-working. Sparty isn’t perfect, though, of course. The Spartans will have to cut down on the turnovers; they ranked 305th in the country in that category last season. Shooting the three is another area that the Spartans must improve in, and the thinking is that a healthier Harris, along with Byrd, Kaminski and even Appling, will vault MSU from a barely mediocre team when shooting the long ball to an above-average one. It wouldn’t hurt Izzo to inject a bit more fluidity into the offense, making sure the ball is constantly moving, especially with Payne’s ability to play in the high post. And while the Spartans don’t aim to score 85 points per game, not even averaging 70, coupled with an inability to hit the three, can and probably will prove very damaging if they have to go up against a team with a high-octane offense in the tournament.

This should be a very, very, very good year for the Spartans. With four of 2012-13’s five starters returning, along with Trice and Valentine to lead a good bench, Izzo could potentially have his deepest team yet. Harris will most likely continue his ascension and be a lottery pick in next year’s draft, and the same could go for Payne. Appling is playing for his NBA life this season, and knows it. I’ll love this team even more if Dawson reverts to 2011-12 form and Costello holds it down more times than not in the middle. The Spartans should be a clear-cut favorite to win the Big 10, as key contenders lost much more from last year’s teams than MSU did. In terms of a national perspective, there are indeed teams who may have more talent, but a group of skilled individuals don’t always beat skilled teams. Kentucky learned this last year.

Michigan State begins the 2013-14 regular season tonight against the Southland Conference’s McNeese St. Cowboys, in East Lansing, MI. McNeese St. was a sub-.500 team in 12-13 and will try to overcome Sparty before going for Southland gold against the likes of Abilene Christian, Nicholls St., Stephen F. Austin and Incarnate Word. I guarantee that despite the caliber of their opponent tonight, Izzo won’t let his guys take the Cowboys lightly. This is especially an important game because the next one for MSU will be against Kentucky. MSU will put on a show tonight in preparation for their showdown on Tuesday night, which I will be in attendance for. Go Green. Go White.